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    Environmental impacts of different energy resources

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    Both renewable energy and non-renewable energy have an effect on the environment. Energy production from fossil fuels can contribute to climate change, but production from renewables can affect the environment and wildlife. 

    Read below some of the main environmental concerns for major energy sources in Canada...

    Read below some of the main environmental concerns for major energy sources in Canada.

    Coal

    Of all the fossil fuels, coal produces the most greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to climate change and pollution. It also has an impact on the land because large areas of land are stripped of vegetation and mining disturbs the earth, leaving the landscape barren for many years. Power plants burn thermal coal to generate electricity, but the use of coal for electricity in Canada is gradually being phased out in an effort to step down the carbon ladder.

    Crude oil

    There are various methods used in crude oil production, including drilling, mining, and steam-assisted gravity drainage. In oil drilling, the greenhouse gas methane may be produced, which is then vented or flared (both methods release emissions into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change). Various extraction methods for crude oil also rely very heavily on water, and this water becomes toxic after mixing with chemicals and heavy metals, which means that it has to be carefully stored in tailings ponds to prevent it from leaking into the ground and nearby rivers and lakes. In the case of oil sands operations, land may be cleared of vegetation in order to be mined. It may take many years to return the land back to its original state through land reclamation practices. Burning crude oil releases greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change. However, crude oil is a step down the carbon ladder from coal and produces fewer emissions. Petroleum products and petrochemicals are a big part of our everyday lives and understanding the environmental cost of consumer culture can be a way to reduce those greenhouse gas emissions. There are also technologies that exist or are being developed to reduce the amount of carbon emissions from power plants, such as carbon capture storage.

    Natural Gas

    Natural gas produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal and oil and is seen as an energy resource that could be used to transition to cleaner and more sustainable energy resources. Methane is also more efficient for electricity generation than coal. However, natural gas is composed primarily of methane. Leaks from natural gas pipelines contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, which cause climate change. Methane traps more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for longer. Natural gas production also water-intensive. Hydraulic fracturing, which is used to extract natural gas from the ground, requires a lot of water and that water is mixed with chemical additives. This water needs to be carefully managed by ensuring that wells are properly constructed and maintained so that they don’t allow fracking fluid to leak and contaminate nearby groundwater. The amount of water used in hydrofracking is also a concern because it can put stress on local water resources in an area.

    Hydropower

    Large hydropower installations such as dam reservoirs require significant areas of land, causing long-term changes to the surrounding landscape and river ecosystems, which can affect wildlife by fragmenting habitats. This has a direct effect on the migration of fish species, reducing their populations. There are some ways to mitigate the negative impact on wildlife, such as with fish ladders that allow fish to migrate around obstacles. Dams can also affect habitats downstream by causing rivers to run dry, which is why most hydropower companies are required to release water periodically to maintain the natural balance. To create large hydro generation plants, reservoirs need to be created by flooding the land. An issue that arises from this is the decomposition of vegetation in dam reservoirs (whether that’s forests or fields or an excess of algae), which releases methane gas when it rots underwater, contributing to climate change. However, estimates for hydropower plant life-cycle emissions are about half of that of natural gas and less than a third of coal emissions.

    Nuclear

    Nuclear power doesn’t directly produce greenhouse gases, but it can pose a risk to the environment with the challenge of ensuring safe long-term storage of hazardous waste. Radioactive materials need to be stored in containers that are leak-proof (which need to be stored in sealed facilities) to ensure they do not get into the groundwater because they can remain radioactive for thousands of years. Spent fuel rods are the most dangerous to safely store in the long-term because of their very long radioactive decay. There are also greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts when it comes to the mining of uranium for use in power generation and the construction of nuclear power plants. Nuclear power is the most water-intensive method of power generation (water is used in any type of thermal power generation, with coal being the second most intensive energy for water use). Water is boiled to produce steam to turn a turbine to produce electricity, and then this water needs to be cooled down before it can be released back into the environment—warmer water can harm wildlife and kill aquatic plant life.

    Wind

    Wind energy is a renewable resource and its production does not directly contribute to climate change, but the manufacturing and set-up of wind farms does produce some greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., transporting the turbines to the site location). However, wind energy is one of the cleanest ways to produce electricity. The land used for wind farms can be multipurpose because the actual turbines do not take up too much space, which allows for the surrounding space to be used for animal grazing, trails, or even agriculture. Wind turbines can have a harmful effect on wildlife, specifically birds and bats, but it is relatively low and doesn’t pose a huge threat to their populations. There are ways to mitigate the effect on wildlife such as with careful site selection, to avoid wildlife migration corridors, or to pause turbines during periods of low wind speed so as not to confuse birds or bats by slow moving blades.

    Solar

    Solar energy is a renewable resource and its production does not directly contribute to climate change, but the manufacturing of solar panels does have an impact on the environment. Some of the materials used for solar panels, such as cadmium and lead, are toxic. These minerals, as well as other compounds, are difficult or expensive to recycle and are considered hazardous waste, which means that they can’t simply be dumped at a regular landfill because the toxic materials could get into the soil. However, methods for recycling solar panels do exist and as the need for it grows, countries will have to create and enforce standards for proper recycling. Land being used for solar farms can’t be used for anything else, such as farming. In addition, animal habitats can be affected or fragmented, and some species (e.g., birds) can be harmed by the high concentration of heat over solar farms. The best way to reduce impact on wildlife is with careful site selection and to make use of existing land that has already been previously developed, such as former landfills or on top of buildings.

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